Sunday after Ascension-day
The Lord is not speaking here in redundant fashion. When Jesus spoke of his having "proceeded forth" from the Father, and his being "sent" by the Father, I hope you see very clearly that he speaks of two distinct things: 1) who He is as God the Son or Word, and 2) his mission in the world as the Father's Apostle.
Now, when we look at the Gospel for today, and how Jesus speaks about the other Comforter (παράκλητος, paraklētos), by telling his disciples that the Holy Spirit proceeds (ἐκπορεύομαι, ekporeuomai) from the Father, and that he, the Son, will "send him" (πέμπω, pempō), the idea is the same as what we saw when Jesus spoke of himself, his own proceeding from the Father and also his being sent into the world. The Greek words used are not the same. What is the same is the distinction between two things that he tells us, first about himself, and then here after the Supper when he echoes the same distinction, speaking about the Holy Spirit. In both cases we see a divine Person who proceeds from the Father's very Being. We can say truly of both of these Persons, the Son and the Spirit, "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God." Indeed, we can say truly of both the Son and the Spirit, "Being of one substance with the Father." And, in both cases we see a divine Person who is sent into the world. In the case of Jesus "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" by taking human nature into the Godhead, our created nature into his uncreated Person, being conceived by the Holy Ghost, of the Virgin Mary. In the case of the Holy Spirit, by his presence with us the Word continues to dwell among us in "the church which His Body, the fullness of him which filleth all in all." (Ephesians 1:23) For, even though the Persons of the Trinity are distinct, they are also inseparable. Where the Spirit is present the Son cannot be absent. Where the Son is present, the Father must be present also. Where God is, He is there in his fullness (this is the meaning of "Divine Simplicity"). Indeed, the whole Gospel of John is about the Trinity and the Incarnation,2 opening with two verses in which God is named as three Persons, and then concentrating on the Word (λόγος, Logos), especially as we come to the Holy of Holies in all scripture: "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." (John 1:14)
Jesus is the Apostle of the Father, and it was expedient that he go away so that his own apostles could establish the Church by the supernatural and charismatic ministry of God with us. He did enter into an unseen demension, into Heaven at the Father's right hand, in order to leave us. Rather, he has gone there inorder to be present everywhere in the world, present manifestly and powerfully in His Body the Church through the Holy Spirit. The throne is the throne of God, and Christ, the Head of the Body with His full authority and power, is no more present in Rome or in Constantinople than He is in your own town.
This Sunday in Ascensiontide is here to point us to next Sunday, Whitsunday or the Feast of Pentecost. Every passage of scripture appointed for Holy Communion during Ascensiontide emphasizes the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today's Collect directs our attention to Christ's exaltation back into the hidden dimension of Heaven that surrounds us, that is separate from the world where sin and death have their allotted time; and it tells of his exaltation only to turn our attention to our dependence on the Holy Spirit. Next week, we will read about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and see that Saint Peter tells us this about the resurrected and glorified Christ: "This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear." (Acts 2:32,33)
Remember what the Lord told the apostles after his resurrection: "As my Father hath sent (ἀποστέλλω, apostellō) me, even so send (πέμπω, pempō) I you." (John 20:21) The apostles are sent by the Son as he is sent by the Father, and he sends them just as he sends the Holy Spirit to them. When you say I believe the Apostolic Church, you are saying a mouthful about the men who have succeeded the apostles into the college of the apostles; a mouthful about the mission of the whole Church; a mouthful about dependence on the Holy Spirit that the Church must acknowledge, and then trust in; a mouthful about the presence in and among us of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, as the Church derives its very being and life from God. For it is not only the apostles, and not only the bishops who have Apostolic Succession, but it is the whole Church that is Apostolic, by the gifts of God that come through them.
We must depend on the Holy Spirit. This means two things: We must not rely on the flesh as if our warfare was carnal; and it means we can have faith in the presence, power and gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as his direction if we will only learn to hear his voice. Ah, but how can we learn to hear his voice until we learn that he is speaking and giving direction that we are all too often too deaf to hear? We treat the Holy Spirit like a stranger, and we assume that we must go about the mission that Christ gave his Apostolic Church by our own cleverness, and by our own means, and within our own limitations. No wonder our labors are lost, and we produce results that are blasted and dried up. If you want the ground to bring forth fruit you must pray for rain. If you want the Church to grow so that "Israel may blossom and bud and fill the face of the world with fruit," (Isaiah 27:6) you must gather as the disciples did in Ascensiontide, and pray for the mighty outpouring once again of God the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said "without me ye can do nothing."(John 15:5) For this reason he has sent the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth. Look at the words of St. Peter from today's Epistle: "As every man hath received the gift (χάρισμα, charisma), even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever." How can we heed these words without gifts of knowledge and of utterance beyond the limitations of our own wisdom? How can we grow in grace unto holiness and develop virtues unless the Fruit of the Holy Spirit grows within our lives, as spoken of in the fifth chapter to the Galatians? How could our sacraments work effectually, or our message go forth, without the charismatic gifts of laborers spoken of in the fourth chapter of Ephesians? How could men receive Holy Orders without the gifts that Paul writes of in both Epistles to Timothy, that were given by the laying on of his apostolic hands?
My message to my fellow Continuing Anglicans in Ascensiontide is simple: As you pray, learn dependence on the Holy Spirit. Stop trusting the arm of flesh which will fail you. Our warfare is not carnal, but spiritual.
Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah. 4:6)
1. Examples: John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18.